Manyi turns the screw on media

GOVERNMENT spokesperson Jimmy Manyi is taking control of the state’s massive R1-billion advertising budget –  and where he spends it  will depend on how well the media “tells the truth” about service delivery.

Media experts said yesterday  it amounted to “economic censorship” and  was “an unacceptable threat” to newspapers that were critical of the government.

Manyi said President Jacob Zuma’s Cabinet had approved a new communication strategy  on Wednesday that would include “a return to government’s centralised approach to media buying”.
He said the plan was not designed to penalise critical mainstream news media, but that placement would be influenced by the extent to which they carried the government’s message.

“Government has the truth to communicate … So the people who are going to pass on our content much more effectively to the public are the people  we will focus on. I can tell you this right now.”

Manyi, who succeeded popular government spokesperson Themba Maseko in February after being suspended as director-general  of Labour, complained that the mainstream media focused on criticising the government and did not adequately report its successes.

“This government has been busy doing very good work.  Now, this government would like the citizens to know the truth.  So all the people who want to work with government to make sure  the people of this country know the truth about service delivery, clearly we will work with [them].”

Manyi said the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS), of which he is  chief executive, would control  all  departments’ advertising budgets and  decide where to place its business.

Jane Duncan, professor of journalism at Rhodes University, said the move appeared to be an attempt to influence  editorial decisions of independent media. “This amounts to economic censorship,”  she said.

SA National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) chairperson Mondli Makhanya, who is the editor-in-chief of Avusa – which owns The Herald and the Weekend Post –  said Manyi’s “incredible plan” amounted to a scheme to bribe the media to write favourably about the government. “Sanef calls on the government to drop this scheme immediately and to revert to accepted professional principles in the placing of advertising before further harm is done.”

Raymond Louw, deputy chairperson of Sanef’s media freedom committee,   said the  move  was an act of intimidation of newspapers  critical of government. “That is an unacceptable threat against newspapers. It is in fact similar to the government deciding to withdraw advertising from newspapers which it doesn’t agree with or which are critical of it,” he said.

In 2007, when relations between the government and the media were at a low, then-minister in the presidency Essop Pahad threatened to withdraw government advertising from the Sunday Times after it  revealed that then- minister of health Manto Thabalala- Msimang was  convicted of theft while working as a doctor in Botswana.

Pahad did not publicly formalise his position, but government jobs advertised in the Sunday Times plunged for several months, fuelling the backlog in senior government appointments.

Currently, each of the 34 government departments determines how much they spend and which media they use to advertise their activities.

Manyi said the government spent about R1-billion a year on media advertising, but media analysts have  put that figure at more than R1.5-billion.

Manyi  said the decision to put the GCIS in  charge of all state advertising expenditure  was  taken back in 1998, but had never been implemented.

He said the mainstream media would still get a “fair share” of government adspend and  GCIS would adopt a “scientific approach” in deciding where to place government adverts.

“Even if you write badly about government we will still do work with you. The criteria is not to write good about government. [It]  is to report on government work [and], once you’ve reported on [that], you can do what you like to criticise it,” he said.

However, he later said government would only do more business with media who wrote “the truth” about government. “To the extent that the government’s information passes on then obviously we will work with those people,” he said.

Duncan said Avusa  was likely to be hit hard due to  a history of tension with  government. “This is deeply problematic from an editorial independence perspective, as it means  government will attempt to impose decisions on the media about what to carry, and withdraw adspend if they do not comply.”

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